It may be just eight to 10 weeks of your life, but it matters. While summer internships are a way to earn needed money, they’re also a great opportunity to discover your passion, get experience in your field of interest, develop new skills and network. Although some summer internships don’t pay very much, what you can gain could have greater value in setting you up for a career.
It’s true that when you’re an intern, you don’t have many privileges. There may not be any perqs, so take time to study, and most importantly, observe the culture. You may find that the people with the loftiest positions aren’t necessarily the people with all the answers, and that the documented protocol is not actually how things get done.
1. Do what you say you’ll do, and do it well. No matter what the job is, performance and a great work ethic are behaviors that will benefit you. That’s integrity; mediocre doesn’t count.
2. Stand out. This may seem to contradict my earlier advice but it does not. You do want to observe the culture of the organization and how people interact with each other to have a sense of where you fit it. You also want to make sure you stand out. That doesn’t mean going overboard (for example, trying to impress your supervisor who loves Toni Morrison novels by standing in line for an autographed copy of God Help the Child).
But do stand out where it counts. Arrive 10 minutes early each day. Ask meaningful questions during staff meetings. Follow through and see projects to the end. Inquire about special projects you'd like to be a part of. Ask your supervisor or project manager to grab a bite and share what you've been getting out of the experience, and ask for feedback about areas in which you need to improve.
3. Stay informed. Or as Erykah Badu says, “stay woke.” What is happening within the field that could favorably or negatively impact your company? It may seem like too much for an intern to do. But when you get in the elevator with your supervisor and project manager, and they’re talking about the latest scandal or newest innovation, you’ll be able to contribute to the conversation.
4. Make connections and stay in touch. After my own intern summer, I made a point to stay in touch with key staff members. It was an added bonus that these people were gifted and genuinely “good peoples.” I knew I wanted these kinds of people in my small but growing network. Even if you happen to intern at a company where you don’t connect with your supervisor or other colleagues in that way, still keep in touch.
Send periodic emails or a note. (Yes, handwritten on an actual card—many people don’t do that, so you will definitely stand out.) Update former colleagues about your progress, whether it’s attending a conference connected to the work or mission of the company, tooting your own horn about excelling academically, asking about the department’s development, or inquiring about upcoming opportunities to intern again.
5. Make a lasting contribution. One of my key projects during my interning summer was to collaborate with two staff to create a new program to train and support youth activists. I identified programs that already existed; researched the history of youth at the forefront of social justice movements; compiled relevant curriculum; and designed the logo for the program. Just two months after I completed my internship, the program was fully up and running, and the staff recognized it was due in part to my significant contributions during the summer.
Two years after that internship, my college graduation was approaching. Though I began hearing from graduate schools I’d applied to, I made the decision not to begin that journey immediately. I called one of my former internship supervisors to share the news and ask for advice. I thought she’d be disappointed, but immediately after explaining my decision, she offered me a full-time job at the organization.
Through my internship experience, key staff and others recognized my genuine interest in youth development, appreciated my contributions, and wanted to invest in my growth as a staff person in the organization. Attending graduate school was temporarily postponed. But when I began reapplying, I had years of experience in my field that resulted in a shining résumé (and a partial scholarship).
Almost 15 years since that first summer internship, I am now one of the executives at that nonprofit organization. The lessons I learned as an intern—the importance of observation, a work ethic of integrity, standing out, leaving a legacy, maintaining connections—are lessons that have been useful throughout my career. Whether you’re hired for a full-time position or not, these principles will lead to a purposeful summer and guide you toward a remarkable career.
Cidra M. Sebastien is associate executive director of the Brotherhood/Sister Sol, a mentor, an auntie and a Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project.